This past weekend flights across the northeast United States and eastern Canada were cancelled en masse as a winter storm descended on the region. For the tens of thousands of travelers stranded or delayed, it’s a lousy experience that seems to have no end. But we know it isn’t any better for the pilots and crews scheduled to work the grounded aircraft. To get some perspective on the matter, we turned to Heather Poole, our favorite flight attendant/writer, for some insight on why exactly it’s so lousy for them. — Jason Clampet
You think you’ve got it bad?
Passengers aren’t the only ones suffering when a storm hits town and causes the airports to close. Here’s what happens when flight attendants get grounded.
We don’t get paid
Flight attendants are paid for flying time only. Time on the ground doesn’t count. I’ve been working as a flight attendant with a major carrier for 17 years and from time to time I’ll work an 11 hour day and only get paid for five of those hours. Happens all the time to more junior flight attendants.
All that time between flights goes unpaid. The flight attendant greeting you at the boarding door is not getting paid. Neither is the flight attendant helping you find a spot for your bag. The time clock doesn’t officially start ticking until the airplane backs away from the gate. Needless to say delays and cancellations affect flight attendants just as much, maybe even more so, than passengers.
We can be reassigned to work for days
Once we’re on a trip, we’re at the company’s beck and call until we die or the weather clears up. When airlines are low on staffing, they can reassign us to work different flights as long as we’re legal. The FAA allows us to work a 16-hour duty day, but we have to get at least eight hours behind a hotel door at the end of the day. Between trips we get 11-12 hours off, depending on if it’s a domestic or international route or whether or not we’re on reserve or holding “a line” (schedule).
After flying six days in a row, the FAA requires us to take a 24 hour break. These 24 hours don’t always take place at home. Sometimes they happen at an airport hotel. 25 hours later we could be right back up in the air. Which is tough because there’s just no way to let our families know when we might be home again.
1. FAAWait – During a creeping weather delay a flight attendant who also works part time as an air traffic controller told me about FAAWait. It’s his favorite app. One click and we knew which airports across the country were also experiencing delays, how long the delays were averaging, and what had caused the delays.
2. MyRadar: Recently a fearful flier on board one of my flights spent three hours watching the weather light up his iPad screen: blue, green, red – wow, so much red! He knew exactly when to expect turbulence, how bad it might get, and how long it would last. Knowing this kept him calm. At one point he even turned around in his seat to let the crew know it would be smooth flying from here on out. Two seconds later the captain called to tell us the exact same thing, it was safe to get up and finish the service. Since then I’ve been recommending the app to anyone who mentions they’re afraid to fly.
3. WhatsApp: An Emirate’s flight attendant from Bosnia based in Saudi Arabia told me about this app on a flight from Miami to New York. WhatsApp makes it possible to send text messages to friends and family out of the country free of charge. There is virtually no cost to stay in touch with loved ones. You can even share audio and video messages.
4. Twitter: Still the best way to get breaking news! You don’t need to “get it.” Just learn how to use the hashtags to find information as it’s happening. For instance, not too long ago I was at an airport that was being evacuated and no one knew why. That was my cue to search the airport code – #DFW. That’s how I found out there was a bomb threat on an incoming flight. I learned this from passengers who were actually on board the flight and tweeting about it as they taxied to the gate.
5. HappyHourFinder: Flight attendants don’t make a lot of money. In fact new hires start out making less than $18,000 a year. And yet we’re subjected to overpriced hotel and airport food on a regular basis. This is why we take advantage of happy hour specials, particularly ones that include half priced appetizers, which might explain how I ended up at Vince Neil’s Bar, Tres Rios, in Las Vegas two hours after learning about the app in the crew van on our way from the airport to the layover hotel.
Hi Heather, My wife is a flight attendant and for some time now I’ve been looking to make a career change and was thinking ofbecoming a flight attendant myself. I can see how she enjoys it and has fun with it and I’d like to try it, too. Do you think it would be a good or bad thing to bring up in an interview situation that I am married to a flight attendant or does it matter at all? Obviously being married to one gives me a greater insight and depth of understanding of the job and what it involves compared to many other candidates. I have a degree in Microbiology so I have somewhat of a brain, although my wife might debate that with you. I also co-managed a bar in Ireland before I came to the United States so I know what it’s like to have to deal with difficult and intoxicated customers. I also was an airport screener for a while and I’m a state certified emergency responder. I’d like to think these things would make me a strong candidate. Just curious what you think. Thanks for your time, Brian.
Based on your work experience alone, you sound like the perfect candidate to me! You’re comfortable cutting people off handling intoxicated passengers, you’re familiar with the responsibilities that go along with working at an airport, and you have a pretty good idea of what life is like in the sky. Being a certified emergency trainer will only make you more attractive to the airlines. Your wife, I’m sure, has mentioned that no one ever dies in flight, right? At least not until a doctor can make an official pronouncement. This might be why so many flight attendants have nursing backgrounds. Some are even senior enough to hold a flying schedule that allows them to balance a nursing career at the same time. These are always my favorite flight attendants to work with because when there’s an emergency in flight, they tend to take over. That being said, I truly believe it’s your wife that makes you a standout.
View from the layover hotel
You know you’re working a Vegas flight when passengers walk on board and ask if you’re serving alcohol – at 7AM (Yes, sir, we will be serving alcohol for breakfast), you’re apologizing for running out of limes before takeoff (not over the PA, even though you’d like to), people keep trying to pay for things (you’re not selling) with a fat ball-o sweaty cash, and no one notices they’re sitting between a stripper and two…well, I probably shouldn’t go there, but I will say their paperwork is hidden in a cubby and I’ll be passing it off to someone meeting the flight. Which reminds me of the announcement Flavor Flavvvv made on a recent flight, “Good luck in the land of lost wages…I mean, Las Vegas.” This after plugging his fried chicken and waffles restaurant in Vegas— ‘Flavor Flav House of Flavors.’ I’ll have to check it out next time I’m in town. So…who’s coming with me?
I would love to become a flight attendant. I live close to Fort Lauderdale airport, only about 30 miles from Miami International Airport and 80 miles from West Palm Beach Airport. I also have two teenagers (13 and 16) so that’s where my question begins. If I live in Florida but my base is in New York, will I have to agree to relocate? How does that work if I live in Florida and have kids and a husband? Would the airline pay me to fly out to my base station every time I need to report to work or do I have to pay for that? Or would I just have to move there? This is what I don’t really understand. – Gladys
On the flight attendant job application you’ll probably find the question, “Are you willing to relocate?” Check the box “no” instead of “yes” and it’s safe to assume you probably won’t get called in for an interview. It’s common knowledge that flight attendants must be willing to cut their hair and go anywhere.
After you’ve successfully completed training, you’ll probably be put on probation. At my airline, probation lasts six months and new hires on probation do not receive travel benefits during this time. New flight attendants who choose to live in another city are on their own when it comes to covering the expense of getting to and from work during the first six months. Once off probation, commuters at my airline fly for free by standing by for an open seat. This is called non-reving because you are now a non-revenue passenger. Keep in mind there are very few open seats available on flights today, especially around holidays, during weekends and all through the summer. I’ve actually seen flight attendants come to blows over the jump seat on the last flight out. Which is why you’re lucky you live so close to three airports. You have options when flights are full or when delays and cancellations affect air travel.
Click the link below to hear Pauline Frommer call my book “a good beach read,” It sounds like she really enjoyed it. Check it out…
The Travel Show – June 10, 2012 – Hour 2: Heather Poole, author of “Cruising Attitude”, tells of her experiences as a flight attendant, both good and bad…
[This post originally appeared on PeterGreenberg.com]
Every week we report on all the craziness that goes on up in the air, but we rarely get to hear from the first person on the scene—the flight attendant. That’s why we always try to talk to and listen to Heather Poole, author of the New York Times bestseller Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. Peter sat down with her to find out about her new memoir, her travel tips and her biggest passenger peeves.
Peter Greenberg: Heather, I have to tell you in the interest of full disclosure, I have actually trained in the simulators, both the cockpit and the cabin, so I’ve done what you’ve done. I believe if you can’t appreciate the process, you can’t value the product.
And so I’ve actually worked a couple of flights, and I have to tell everybody it is not an easy job. At the end of that, I needed a vacation for just one cycle of doing these turnarounds. I was done for a week.
Heather Poole: I know, but we are survivors as flight attendants. You have to be to do this job. You are awesome to have walked a mile in our shoes. You should run for airline CEO.
PG: Let’s talk about your book. It’s great memoir that also has some practical tips in there. It’s packing advice, but also why it’s a bad idea to fall for pilots. Help me out on this one, Heather…
HP: Because of the mysterious lifestyle of the flight attendant, everyone assumes that we’re all getting together with pilots. But you have to remember, there are so many more of us than there are of them. I don’t think it’s happening any more than it happens in other jobs. It’s just that at the end of the day, we end up at a hotel, and everyone’s imaginations run with that. Remember the pilot looks more like Danny DeVito than he does Rob Lowe. I’m sure pilots feel the same way about us flights attendants in a lot of cases too to be fair.